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How will the USWNT use the three-back?

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Jill Ellis is experimenting with a three-back system. Here’s everything you need to know to follow along

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Soccer: International Friendly Women's Soccer-Switzerland at USA Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few decades, the back three has been a relatively scarce phenomenon—used now and again to modest effect by the occasional Italian side, the Chilean national team, and a few other spotted squads looking to bolster their defensive line.

But in the past 18 months, it’s spread like wildfire. Suddenly, a significant percentage of the best teams in the men’s games are playing with a back three. And while the trend hasn’t taken over the women’s side with quite as much force, it’s certainly on the radar for the US women’s national team, who experimented with a three-back approach last fall and look set to test it out against stiffer opposition in the SheBelieves Cup.

Back in November, I speculated a bit about the long-term prospects for a three-back approach, and discussed some and the strengths and weakness of the setup. But now that things are about to get back into swing, I thought it might be helpful to fill in some of the gaps.

Before getting started, though, it’s important to point out that you can find plenty of excellent recent articles on the subject, from folks like Jonathan Wilson (whose Inverting the Pyramid is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the evolution of soccer tactics) and Michael Cox—who are far more qualified than me to opine on the pluses and minuses of these approaches.

Still, for all that back threes are being widely debated and dissected, there has been comparatively little discussion about the US Women’s approach—with this excellent piece from Richard Farley being the notable exception.

And that’s where this article comes in. The goal is to provide a primer for those interested in tracking the US experiment—offering a dime store version of the big debates on the subject, and applying those broad ideas to the particular case.

What are the different types of three-back systems?

To start, it’s important to distinguish among the many varieties of back three systems, which run the gamut from the WM (popular in the 1930s but mostly out of style since the 1960s) to the solid 3-5-2 (popular in the 90s and irregularly deployed ever since) to the 3-4-2-1 (currently in widespread use around the men’s game). And then there are other variations like Chile’s 3-3-3-1 and Barcelona’s 3-3-1-3.

Trying to distinguish all these approaches would take many thousands of words, and fortunately isn’t necessary for our purposes. Ultimately, there’s one key question any three-back system needs to ask: is the goal offensive or defensive?

Defensive back threes (usually seen in the form of a 3-5-2) are organized around the principle of adding a central defender, stabilizing the defense, and permitting a bit more control over the center of the pitch. In practice, this often means pushing a holding midfielder back fully into the defense, and shifting the wide defenders up into the midfield. This transition, from fullback to wingback, is important, but ultimately doesn’t generate all that much difference in style of play. They have a bit more freedom to advance in possession, with the knowledge that an extra center back is protecting their rear, but retain the same basic role. For obvious reasons, this tends to work best with highly mobile wingbacks. In attack, they can push forward and generate an additional body in the midfield. In defense, they drop back and help pack the final third.

It’s a solid framework, and well suited for dealing with the traditional 4-4-2. But it’s fairly static, particularly when faced with its mirror image. Matches between two teams both using a 3-5-2 can quickly grind to a halt, with a lot of lost possession and pointless pinging around the midfield and relatively little incisive attack.

Offensive back threes, by contrast, are organized around the principle of subtracting a defender, in order to add a body further up the pitch. This necessarily constrains the coverage available from the backline, and pushes the entire game significantly forward. An attacking three-back setup involves high lines, aggressive pressure, and the occasional bit of desperation defending.

In general, the trend toward back threes has been in the attacking direction, and the US is no exception. Ellis clearly sees the three-back system as a mechanism for putting opponents to the sword, not as a technique for defensive solidity.

Why play with a back three?

The question, then, is what advantages the US might hope to obtain by developing a back three system. Here, there are five key advantages: the first specific to the USWNT, and the last four more general.

First is the unique possibilities provided by the current US squad—which is filled with strong attackers and dual-use players. Players like Christen Press and Crystal Dunn have occasionally struggled to fit into the US system, not for lack of talent but simply for lack of space. A 3-4-2-1 could be ideally suited to bring them into the game in useful positions—and to take advantage of their skill at closing down in transition. It could also be an excellent way to build around Carli Lloyd. A mercurial player who often doesn’t fit well into systems designed to distinguish forwards and midfielders, Lloyd would be ideally placed as an inside forward tucked behind a central striker.

Second, increasingly in modern soccer, the game is won and lost in the central midfield—and there is a premium on tactical setups that can generate a numerical advantage here. This is the same logic that was driving so many teams to deploy the 4-2-3-1 in recent years. However, no system is perfect. There are always strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities for clever opponents to exploit gaps. With the constant push and pull of tactical evolution, the 4-2-3-1 has begun to decline in popularity and the back three seems to be filling the space. Despite their differences, the central insight of each approach is quite similar, and quite simple: control the center of the pitch and you multiply your options in every direction.

Third, a back three allows teams to more successfully defend via an aggressive attack. Basically: if you can pin opposing wingers back in their defensive third, it opens space for your midfield to operate. Again, this is not a new insight—it’s the same principle that has driving the trend of attacking fullbacks—but it’s a place where three-back systems are uniquely capable of capitalizing, since they can afford to press high on both wings while still maintaining a solid defensive line.

Fourth, the back three has grown more viable in recent years as defending has shifted more and more to a process of marking space rather than players. As Jonathan Wilson has argued: “Defending has become less and less about the traditional values of winning headers or tackles and more and more about positional sense, about keeping the shape and pressing so the system does the work rather than there being a reliance on defenders to win individual battles.” In this process, the classic problem of a back three (it tends to ‘waste’ a body in the back line when deployed against a single striker) has faded in significance. In anticipation of more fluid offenses, defenses are now expected to choke off space as much as they are expected to make tackles and interceptions. This more diffuse responsibility means that a back three will always be busy even when tasked with only a single striker to mark.

Fifth, and seemingly the most importantly in the US case, a back three is particularly well suited for the counterpress—that is: for a strategy organized around quick pressing to recover lost balls while still deep in the attacking half. A well-executed counterpress is a thing of beauty: harrying the opposition from the instant of lost possession, closing down space immediately and preventing outlet passes to safety. To succeed at the counterpress, however, takes intensity and bodies. You need players in position to instantly close down space. And here, once again, the three-back setup shifts a player from a ‘wasted’ position in a straight-line back four up into more dangerous counterpressing territory.

The risk and reward of the counterpress

The counterpress is a dual-use weapon. It’s a powerful defensive technique, which operates on the principle that your opponent can’t do much damage if they never have the ball. But it’s also a key offensive weapon, insofar as it seizes possession in dangerous territory against an opponent that has just abandoned its defensive structure. In effect, it turns the tables on a counterattacking team, capitalizing on the gaps created by a team in broken transition.

As Richard Farley noted in his piece on the US system, this seems to be a special priority for Ellis—as a tactic to compensate for the team’s occasional listlessness when faced with organized defenses.

However, this is the epitome of a high-risk/high-reward approach. Since the whole point is to play an aggressively high line, when it fails, the counterpress offers acres of space to the opposition. In order to limit the damage in these cases, therefore, a couple key principles must be followed:

1. If the press fails, the retreat must be swift and uniform. This is not a setup that can survive a partial buy-in.

2. The back three must be vigilant, mobile, and extremely astute positionally. They will be tasked with closing down channels for any counterattacks that defeat the counterpress, and with defending against balls over the top. The difference between a clearance and a long diagonal that puts a striker through on goal will often be a matter of just a few feet.

3. The keeper should be comfortable playing outside of the box as a sweeper. If she’s unwilling to take the occasional gamble and close down balls that clear the defense, she will invariably get stuck in dangerous one-one-ones.

4. Finally, and probably most importantly, a successful back three depends heavily on the protection provided by the holding midfielder(s). Think N'Golo Kanté for Chelsea this year, whose tenacious defending has been the defining feature of their successful run since switching to a back three.

Who will fill the defensive slots?

And here is where we encounter some of the difficulties with the US setup—at least as deployed so far. #1 is primarily a matter of practice, and is all the more reason for the team to invest seriously in the experiment. And while neither of the prospective keepers for this tournaments are noted for their sweeping capabilities, neither are they weak in that respect. The other two principles, however, are far iffier.

The back three, in this model, needs pace, positional awareness, and ice-cold veins. Which makes it all the stranger that Elllis’s apparent preferred Starting XI has featured Casey Short, Allie Long, and Becky Sauerbrunn on the back line. Short is certainly fast, but she is not a particularly stout defender (at least not yet). Her primary strength is as an overlapping fullback. On the other side, Sauerbrunn is one of the world’s best defenders and almost eerily skilled at defensive positioning. However, for all her strengths, she’s not especially pacey. Finally, Long is a good attacking midfielder and tolerable holding midfielder, who has strangely been asked to serve as the libero—a position for which she has no previous experience, and whose traditional skillset she has shown little evidence of possessing.

As Ellis has described the setup, she sees the central defender as something of a ‘quarterback,’ who will distribute play from deep and generally orchestrate the offensive buildup. There is certainly some value to this thought, since poor buildup from the back has been a consistent problem for the US in big matches. But one can’t help but wonder if the cure is worse than the disease in this case. After all, the primary objective of a back three is to move play as quickly as possible up the pitch—into the midfield where you expect to dominate.

A central defender with skill on the ball is nice, but it’s hard to believe that’s more important than strong defensive bona fides—particularly when facing the best attacking teams in the world. And while Long is a decent marker, she has shown little skill at managing defensive space—the crucial skill for securing a defensive third with only three players. Of course, it’s possible that with months to work on this problem, she may have developed on this front, but it is a potential major red flag.

Ultimately, the composition of the back three will make a big difference—so it’s well worth watching how Ellis approaches this matter. Will she accede to the demands of tougher opposition and play a more traditionally solid back line? If not, will her chosen back three be able to withstand the onslaught of smooth passing and incisive attacks unfurled by Germany, France, and England?

What is the ultimate tactical goal?

Meanwhile, one of the other crucial features of a viable three back formation is a strong defensive presence in the holding positions just ahead of the defense. The shield provided by a strong holding midfielder is absolutely essential to a viable three back setup—and that’s precisely what the US team currently lacks.

The closest available option is Morgan Brian, who has the acceleration and field vision to do the job, but isn’t the greatest tackler, and who prefers to play in a more attacking position. She could certainly be deputized in the role—and has been deployed very successfully in the holding role before—but it remains to be seen whether Ellis is willing to fully commit to this approach. After all, her persistent lack of interest in employing Number 6s over the years suggests a general distaste for the holding role itself.

Combined, the stated desire to continue using Long as the pivot of both defense and attack, along with the failure to bring a single true #6 to the tournament, necessarily raise some questions about the ultimate tactical objective. Is the goal simply to get as many attackers on the pitch as possible, and damn the torpedoes? Can she make it work, even with the potential liabilities in some areas? Or does Ellis have a different vision for a viable defensive structure than what I’ve laid out here?

We can certainly make some educated guesses, but ultimately the only way to find out is to watch the games.

At the end of the day, there is great value in experimenting—and there’s no better time than now to trying out some new approaches. And Ellis certainly deserves credit for her willingness to push the margins in an effort to capitalize on the US talent pool. The range of options made possible with a back three might be crucial to the future success of the team, and it will be very interesting to watch this process develop.